Nicolas Deshayes, Thames Water, 2016, cast iron, hot water, 45 1/2 × 83 3/4 × 3".

Nicolas Deshayes, Thames Water, 2016, cast iron, hot water, 45 1/2 × 83 3/4 × 3".

Nicolas Deshayes

Modern Art Helmet Row

Nicolas Deshayes, Thames Water, 2016, cast iron, hot water, 45 1/2 × 83 3/4 × 3".

Plumbing is the original, mostly invisible, technological network that connects us. Clean water, delivered through a hidden maze of pipes that pop up in our homes, enables us to live the sanitary, hygienic lives we take for granted and which are requisite for social acceptability in the developed world. For his exhibition of new work—titled “Thames Water,” after the utility company responsible for waste treatment and the distribution network for clean water in Greater London—Nicolas Deshayes presented six sculptures that functioned as radiators. Cast-iron forms mimicking assholes, wiry intestines, and prolapsed stomach muscles hung at the base of the gallery walls, snaking their way around the space. Bulbous at points, as if throbbing with heat, they were connected by galvanized steel pipes through which heated water ran, creating an environment almost too hot to hang out in when I visited on an unseasonably warm September day.

Deshayes often works with industrial manufacturers and tradespeople to create sculptures, going to factories or bringing specialists to the gallery; for example, this exhibition was installed by plumbers rather than art handlers. The sculptures began their development as a collaboration, instigated by the gallery Eastside Projects in Birmingham, UK, with a foundry in the Midlands town of Tipton—part of an ongoing program to pair artists with fabrication industries in the area around Birmingham, known as the “city of a thousand trades” following the Industrial Revolution. Deshayes first experimented with functional heating systems as art in 2015 at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, where he created “Darling, Gutter.,” a series of similarly amorphous forms cast in Jesmonite, a gypsum-based composite. This time around, he wanted to employ a material that is true to its purpose: In Victorian England, cast iron was typically used to make radiators.

Deshayes’s work is easily categorized by its mix of Minimalist and Pop aesthetics. True to the original practice of the Minimalists, Deshayes uses industrial products, fabrication methods, and commercial materials for their functional properties. However, in opposition to the Minimalists’ cool, rigorous approach to form and color—characteristics often inherent to their choice of material—Deshayes is concerned with how the human body and mind are both serviced and contained by the institutional architectures and systems we live in. In part due to their cast-iron gray, Deshayes’s wormlike sculptures also recall graphic artist H. R. Giger’s surreal set designs morphing human entities with technology in sci-fi epics such as the original Alien (1979). The combination of these alien forms with the allusion to “home comforts,” such as the radiator or bath, led me to think about the bodies in the world who are not warmed or washed, in particular those of the homeless who populate the streets of so many cities. These outcast bodies are stigmatized because they do not conform to normative ideas of hygiene; they are considered unpalatable or distasteful—even alien by some. Have you ever felt so depressed that it didn’t seem worth the trouble to wash, so that you started to look a feral mess? I have, as surprising as that might be to those who know me professionally. Perhaps no one is entirely immune to such possibilities. Although they may seem cartoonish, fun, art-historically acceptable, and highly fabricated, Deshayes’s sculptures have the serious intent of asking us to consider the fragility of the systems that keep us alive.

Kathy Noble